It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Sure, they lost Vladimir Guerrero to free agency during the off-season, but the Expos still had a solid offensive core. Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, Carl Everett, Nick Johnson, Orlando Cabrera — a team with these guys should score some runs.
Except they haven’t. Johnson has yet to play a single game, Everett had 30 unproductive at-bats before heading to the disabled list, and, through Saturday, Wilkerson is the only guy on the entire team with an on-base percentage (.366) above the National League average (.331).
Wilkerson has been the team’s best hitter, but his .786 OPS (.244/.366/.420) ranks him just 48th in the National League. He has just 12 RBIs in 37 games and leads the team with a paltry 16 runs scored. Vidro, long one of the best and most consistent offensive second basemen in baseball, is hitting just .254/.329/.410, but even that makes him the team’s second-most-productive hitter.
There’s no secret to Montreal’s lack of offensive success. Through Saturday, they ranked dead last in the NL in batting average (.220), on-base percentage (.275), slugging percentage (.333), OPS (.608), hits (268), walks (87), doubles (43) and total bases (405).
The only major offensive category they aren’t the worst in the league in is home runs — they rank second-to-last, with 26. The Padres, in their new, homer-resistant ballpark, have just 22.
This is an ugly offense, from top to bottom. Without a healthy Nick Johnson all year, they moved Wilkerson to first base and plugged the hole in the outfield with centerfielders Endy Chavez and Peter Bergeron. Montreal centerfielders have combined to hit .219/.263/.265 with one home run, two doubles, one triple and seven RBIs in 151 at-bats.
As you can imagine, their center field-production has been the worst in the NL. However, it isn’t the only position that can make that claim.
OPS RANK C .664 11th 1B .681 14th 2B .718 9th SS .683 8th 3B .622 15th LF .636 16th CF .527 16th RF .618 16th P .304 14th
That’s really quite amazing. All three of the outfield spots have been the least productive in the NL, and even the pitchers — a group that includes Livan Hernandez, who has been known to do some damage with the bat — rank 14th in the league. The middle infield duo of Vidro and Cabrera have manned the two most productive positions on the team, but they are still simply average.
When Everett went down, the Expos turned to Terrmel Sledge and Juan Rivera to fill his spot in the lineup. This actually showed off a surprising amount of depth for a team with a barren farm system and no payroll, as both Sledge and Rivera are quality players. Of course, then Sledge went and started his career by going 0-for-18 and 1-for-34. Sledge has turned it around and has been one of Montreal’s lone bright spots by hitting .405/.444/.786 this month, but the damage was already done with his slow start. His OBP is still just .307.
Actually though, with the help of Sledge’s hot hitting, the whole offense has improved in May.
AVG OBP SLG April .210 .260 .292 May .239 .303 .406
Hey, I said the offense has improved, not that it was good. All improvement is relative, of course, but you have to start somewhere, right?
Also, like Sledge, the entire offense has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching. Okay, they’ve struggled mightily against all pitching, but they’ve struggled … well, whatever a step beyond mightily is against southpaws.
AVG OBP SLG vs RHP .237 .289 .376 vs LHP .189 .252 .254
That sort of complete, team-wide inability to hit left-handed pitching is remarkable. The amazing thing is that, of Montreal’s main hitters thus far, the majority — Vidro, Cabrera, Rivera, Tony Batista, Einar Diaz, Everett — are right-handed (or switch) hitters.
The worst offender against lefties is Sledge, a left-handed hitter who is 1-for-19 (.053) against them. Cabrera, who hit lefties to the tune of .311/.376/.453 last season, is just 11-for-51 (.216) with a .579 OPS. Vidro, who hit lefties at .315/.389/.535 last season, is hitting just .255 with a .298 slugging percentage against them. The team’s highest OPS against southpaws comes from Wilkerson once again, who is hitting a less-than-spectacular .231/.375/.359 for a .734 OPS.
With all of these individual and team struggles offensively, the one thing that stood out to me and made me take notice of what the Expos are doing was just how different Montreal’s runs scored total looked.
1) Houston 199 2) Colorado 193 3) Milwaukee 189 4) St. Louis 185 5) Chicago 182 6) Arizona 180 7) Philadelphia 170 8) Atlanta 169 9) Cincinnati 166 10) Los Angeles 163 San Diego 163 12) New York 160 13) Florida 158 14) Pittsburgh 155 San Francisco 155 16) Montreal 97
If this were one of those “which one of these is unlike all the rest?” questions on a test, I think even I could nail it.
There is offensive futility, and then there is offensive futility that makes the Pirates look good. It’s not just the NL either. Through Saturday, the Expos were the only major-league team with fewer than 100 runs scored this year. In fact, they were the only team with under 130 runs. The next worst offense, belonging to the Devil Rays, has an OPS that is 12% higher than Montreal’s, and they have scored nearly 43% more runs per game.
Just how bad is this offense?
Well, they scored 97 runs in their first 37 games, which works out to 2.62 runs per game. Over the course of a full season, that comes out to a total of 424 runs scored.
There are many ways to put that number in proper context, but here’s a simple one: Boston scored 573 runs before the All-Star break last season. Actually, a total of 21 teams scored more than 424 runs prior to the All-Star break last season, including the Expos, who scored 427 runs in 94 games (4.54/G).
Here’s another way to look at those 424 projected runs … five teams scored more runs than that in their 81 games on the road last season and nine teams scored more than 424 runs in their 81 home games.
For the Expos to turn things around and end up scoring more runs than the 2003 Dodgers — the worst offense in the majors last year — they would need to score 3.82 runs per game for the rest of the season. That may not seem like much, and in fact 3.82 runs per game is awful, but that would be an increase of about 45% over the offense they’ve supplied so far.
Realistically, there is no way the Expos will score just 424 runs this season. It just won’t happen. They’ll get healthy at some point — remember, Nick Johnson can really hit if/when he’s in the lineup — and probably reel off a week with a few double-digit scoring games. Still, it’s not like we’re a week into the season, we’re about six in, and the Expos have played nearly 25% of their schedule.
Looking back through baseball history, 424 runs in a season would be pretty incredible.
There have been 965 teams in MLB history that played at least 160 games in a season. Should the Expos keep up their pace, they would shatter the record for fewest runs scored among those teams.
Here are the current “leaders”:
YEAR TEAM RS 1968 Chicago White Sox 463 1963 Houston Astros 464 1969 San Diego Padres 468 1968 Los Angeles Dodgers 470 1968 New York Mets 473
The first thing you probably notice is that all five of those teams are from the 1960s, and three of the five are from 1968. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, because 1968 was basically The Year of the Pitcher.
The average major-league team scored 3.42 runs per game in 1968. To put that in some context, the average major-league team scored 4.73 runs per game last season, which is nearly 40% more offense than 1968.
Bob Gibson led the National League with an absolutely astounding 1.12 ERA in 1968, the lowest single-season ERA since 1914. Over in the AL, Luis Tiant led the league with a 1.60 ERA, which despite being 43% higher than Gibson’s, has been topped exactly two times since then (Doc Gooden, 1985 and Greg Maddux, 1994).
MLB hit a combined .237 with a .296 on-base percentage and a .340 slugging percentage in 1968. Think about that for a moment. Rey Ordonez is a career .248/.291/.311 hitter, in case you’re wondering.
Yet, despite the extraordinary lack of offense in 1968 and the years surrounding it, Montreal’s current 424-run pace would shatter all marks for team-scoring futility. 424 would beat the current record-holders, the 1968 White Sox, by 39 runs. The Expos scored 45 runs in all of April.
The National League is scoring about 4.77 runs per game so far this season. In 1968, the NL scored 3.43 runs per game. That means Montreal’s current rate of 2.62 runs per game is the equivalent of about 1.88 runs per game in 1968. 1.88. Amazing.
Here’s how the 2004 Expos and 1968 White Sox compare, after 37 games:
RS 2004 Montreal Expos 97 1968 Chicago White Sox 92
As you can see, the ’68 ChiSox got off to a very slow start. They actually scored a total of just 24 runs in 14 April games. For those of you without calculators (although with numbers that small, who needs calculators?), that is a measly 1.71 runs per game. Shockingly, the White Sox went 2-12 in April. The Expos got off to a slightly faster start, scoring an average of 1.88 runs per game in April.
The White Sox were shut out an incredible 23 times in 1968. It took them 63 games before they scored double-digit runs in a game. Once they did it though, they liked it so much that they scored 10+ three times in eight games. Sadly, they reached double-figures just two more times in their final 91 contests.
Here’s the amazing thing though … the White Sox scored 10+ just five times all season, but they allowed 10+ in a game a total of only three times. That’s because Chicago’s pitching staff ranked fourth in the National League with a 2.75 ERA. Now, that’s not as impressive as it initially looks, thanks to the offensive environment that we already touched on, but it’s still pretty good.
Wilbur Wood had an amazing season out of the bullpen. He pitched in 88 games, making just two starts, and finished with a 1.87 ERA in 159 innings. That’s some serious relief pitching. But wait, it gets more impressive … Wood went 13-12 and also saved 16 games.
He wasn’t alone out in the pen, either. A 45-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm went 4-4 with 12 saves and a 1.73 ERA in 93.2 innings and Bob Locker went 5-4 with 10 saves and a 2.29 ERA in 90.1 innings. The 1968 White Sox had, without a doubt, a playoff-caliber pitching staff.
This year’s Expos look fairly similar. They have a 3.74 team ERA through 37 games, which ranks third in the NL. It looks like Livan Hernandez (2-2, 2.97 ERA) will be playing the role of Joe Horlen, and Zach Day (2-4, 3.35 ERA) will play the part of Jack Fisher.
They won’t have a Wilbur Wood, since no one will come close to that sort of workload out of the pen anytime soon, but Luis Ayala is already 0-5, despite pitching a total of just 21 innings. He’s pitched fairly well too, with a 3.43 ERA. In fact, the entire Montreal bullpen has had a very rough time. Montreal’s relievers have pitched a total of 100.2 innings with a 3.58 ERA and they have held batters to a stingy .249 batting average. Yet, the bullpen is a combined 1-9. Ouch.
Just like the 1968 White Sox’s pitching staff, if you match this Montreal group (so far, at least) up with a good offense, they’d be playoff bound.
Will the Expos break the record for fewest runs in a season of at least 160 games? I really doubt it. They’ll get hot as some point and they simply have too many quality bats in the lineup to keep doing this for much longer. The ’68 White Sox were a legitimately horrific offensive bunch, but this Expos squad has some actual firepower on it, and even has a few guys who have been among the best hitters at their position.
Plus — and this will be a major factor before the end of the year — the Expos will play half their games in parks that significantly favor hitting. They’ll play 69 games in Olympic Stadium, which has been a mild but consistent hitters’ ballpark for years, and they’ll play 22 games in Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico, which played as a major hitters’ paradise last season.
The Olympic/Hiram Bithorn hybrid may not give hitters anywhere near the offensive boost it gave them last season, but it’ll still help quite a bit. At the very least, it should mean a dozen extra runs, which makes a big difference when you’re trying to outstink a team that scored 24 runs in an entire month.